In the Magic Theatre

The philosopher William James once referred to philosophical rationalists as “tender minded” while philosophical empiricists were “tough minded”. Dealing with abstractions, as rationalists do, requires nothing more than a comfy chair, perhaps in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night with a nice cup of hot brandy to warm the stomach. Dealing with facts and, more importantly, the testing of facts requires you to get off the philosopher’s couch and go out into “the real world”. It is in this “real world” that engineering and science do their work (although today much of science is carried out on the modern equivalent of the philosopher’s armchair: a computer). The pragmatic philosophy which James espoused is a natural fit with the domains of life where you actually have to build something and test that it works.

Proving that things work takes time, energy and money and always more of these than you think it should. This should is itself an abstraction. You have a dream. You make a plan and in your plan you imagine the best case scenario, the shortest route to the goal where everything goes perfectly. That much can be done from the armchair. Turning the abstraction into reality requires dedication, focus, will power and persistence, among other attributes. Along the way, things go wrong, unexpected problems emerge, you get tired and you want to take short cuts. Sometimes you curse having ever started in the first place and you just want it to be over. That’s the workaday world of engineering and science. Only the tough minded need apply.

I recall a meeting earlier in my career which was at the start of a new project. The business people were outlining the reasons for doing the project. It was a nice story full of abstractions. I asked what seemed to me to be a simple and obvious question about one of the main outcomes the project was trying to achieve: “what percentage <of some metric> would you consider success?” The project manager had no answer and it was clear from her response that she hadn’t even thought about it. This is the norm in corporations. Often millions of dollars are spent on projects where nobody has even calculated the expected return on investment. Even on the one metric that you would expect businesses to care about, i.e. profit, the business plan doesn’t include a specific, measurable number. This makes sense politically, of course, because if you allow something to be tested you also allow the possibility of failure and therefore the possibility of being blamed for failure. Much easier to stay in the world of abstractions where things are not testable and failure can be glossed over.

That might work for business managers and politicians but it can’t work for engineering teams who are tasked with building something and need parameters to work with so that they can design and test a solution and know that it works. Let’s do a lightning overview of what that process looks like using an example that is very poignant at the moment. Imagine we are the engineering team at a pharmaceutical company. We have just started a new project where management has given us the task formulated as the following abstraction: “create a vaccine that is safe and effective against coronavirus”.

The first thing we need to do as engineers is break this abstraction down into testable statements. This involves asking questions like “what sort of vaccine”? “What does safe mean?” “What does effective mean?”

Let’s set aside the question of what is and is not a vaccine and focus on the two other abstractions in our brief: “safe” and “effective”.

“Safe” could mean any of the following:-

  • Causes 0 side effects or deaths
  • Causes some temporary side effects but no death or permanent injury
  • Causes some temporary side effects and some deaths and permanent injuries

But these are too vague for science and engineering. We need specific, testable parameters. For example:

  • Causes temporary side effects in no less than 97.56% of cases

This statement is better but it still contains the abstraction “temporary”. We need to be specific about that too:

  • Causes side effects that last shorter than 60 days in no less than 97.56% of cases.

That’s better but we still need to define what counts as a “side effect”. If our vaccine caused a pain in the arm for an hour after injections but otherwise no other symptoms we wouldn’t consider it “unsafe”. So, we need to be more specific. We could reformulate the parameter as follows:

  • Causes side effects that require hospitalisation within 60 days of treatment in no less than 97.56% of cases.

This is the kind of statement that can be tested but it’s just one among many testable statements that form the parameters by which the engineering team can start to design a solution and then to test that the solution works. We would need to do the same for the abstraction “effective”.

Is this attention to detail hard work? Sure is. But that’s just the beginning. The reason we create testable assertions is so that engineering team can design the solution and then we can test the solution to make sure it meets the criteria. In the design, implementation and testing phases, ambiguities pop up, unforeseen problems arise, new information comes to light and we need to continually refine our analysis. For example, let’s say you notice that people in your study are suffering heart attack at four times the rate seen in the average population. You didn’t include heart attack in your list of side effects because you had no reason to think it was relevant to this particular medication. Should you now include it? You’ll probably need to go off and investigate the cause of the heart attack to try and figure out whether it can be traced to the vaccine or whether it was a statistical anomaly. What if it’s not something acute like heart attack but the fact that people are reporting subjective feelings of fatigue or aches and pains. Do they count as side effects? If somebody has persistent headaches for two years, do we include this person in the statistics even if we can’t find any explanation that establishes why the vaccine caused it? These are all the kinds of questions that pop up along the way in an engineering project.

These three elements – the abstraction, the testable statements that prove it and the testing that verifies the testable statements – can be thought of as a hierarchical structure where you drill down from abstractions to testable statements and then come back up from testing to the statements tested and then back up to the abstraction.

The world of abstractions is simple and comfortable. The real work begins in the realm of testable statements and testing. It’s down there where it’s easy to get lost, bogged down in ambiguity, confused, demoralised and weary. That’s why empiricism is for the tough minded who can stay focused and know how to navigate up and down through the hierarchy.

Note that this is just the beginning of the “fun” when it comes to testing things like vaccines. Because vaccines deal with the living biological world which is always in a process of becoming, any testing is fundamentally time dependent and quickly becomes out of date. This is especially true with rapidly mutating respiratory viruses. [This is a non-trivial problem and in my opinion the cold, hard, reductionist, analytical methods of the intellect cannot adequately explain the biological world and a huge part of our problem is that we believe that they can.]

Another issue is who gets to say that 97.56% is the cutoff at which a vaccine is called “safe”? One person’s “safe” is another person’s “not safe”. This leads to a second issue which is that, although it is valid to generalise across populations, a statistical average guarantees nothing about the safety to an individual. This is especially true with medical interventions where the number of variables to consider is astronomical. Thus, it’s not actually possible to say that something is “safe” at the individual level. At the individual level there is always an element of risk and that risk cannot be known in advance. Even if a vaccine had proven 100% safe up until now, the next person who takes it could get sick or die from it. For them it wasn’t “safe”.

The statistical average can and should inform our decision, of course. This is the kind of personalised advice that a doctor gives before administering a medical intervention. It should always come with the caveat that statistical average are just that and there is an irreducible element of risk at the individual level. That’s why it is always the patient who must assume the risk of any decision about whether to go ahead with treatment.  

All this gets brushed aside when politicians intervene and demand that a vaccine is safe and effective. Politicians almost exclusively stay up in the world of abstractions for the reasons outlined earlier. In the world of abstractions, you can escape responsibility for failure; one of the key skills of any politician. Much public discourse relies on the unspoken assumption that somewhere “the experts” are doing the hard work of creating testable statements and then testing them. There is no reason, of course, why politicians couldn’t just report the findings of the experts. They could say that in 97.56% of cases there are no side effects. Strangely enough, this is exactly what the West Australian Premier did recently when he made the following statement:

“So far, the science shows that people with only two doses of a Covid vaccine have only a 4 per cent protection against being infected by the Omicron variant,” Mr McGowan said. “With a third dose it can provide a 64 per cent protection against infection.”

The statement was unusual not just because politicians normally avoid being so specific but also because these statements are not very flattering to the stated policy of the Premier. 64% isn’t a particularly impressive number. Nevertheless, it would be nice to have more such statements in public discourse because they give us something to bite into as good empiricists. Note that there is ambiguity in the Premier’s statement. Is the Premier is saying 64% of the vaccinated people are protected from being infected 100% of the time or 100% of the vaccinated have a 64% chance of not being infected any given time they are exposed to the virus? This is the kind of question we would ask when constructing testable statements. It’s also the kind of question a good journalist would ask so that the public can understand what is being said. Having clarified that, a good journalist should also ask the Premier to point to the evidence that proves the truth of the statement.

There was an example of this kind of reporting just recently in this unintentionally hilarious press conference from the US where a defence spokesman makes a claim about Russia which is challenged by a journalist who asks for proof. We could break the spokesman’s claim down as follows:

Abstraction: Russia might commit a false flag disinformation campaign in Ukraine

Testable statement: we have information about Russia hiring people to carry out the false flag

Testing: source evidence which shows that Russia hired people

In the video, the reporter asks the defence spokesman to provide the evidence, which in this case means show us the intelligence you have that Russia hired people to do the thing you say they are going to do. The spokesman responds by saying that him making the statement at the press conference IS the evidence which, the journalist rightly points out, is not real evidence. It gets funnier from there and I recommend watching the video for yourself.

Of course, this is merely funny (unless it happens to start WW3) but almost the exact same thing was attempted with the releasing of the pharmaceutical companies’ documents about the trials done on the corona vaccines. Originally it was ruled that Big Pharma could wait seventy five years before releasing their evidence, which amounts to not ever having to release it. But that was overruled and apparently the evidence is due to be released soon although still more than a year later than it should have been if you wanted doctors and the public to actually make an informed choice about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Why weren’t journalists (and doctors for that matter) demanding to see the evidence about the vaccines? We can come up with a host of reasons why but the truth is that they didn’t and neither did most of the people who got the vaccine. The willingness to follow the abstraction without demanding evidence represents a general trend away from tough minded empiricism and towards tender minded abstractions that has been in train for some time. Empiricism takes time and resources. Both of these are lacking these days because we are going backwards economically and because the “pace of life” has sped up. Actually, this speeding up is itself a symptom of decline. We don’t have time to do the job properly anymore. Journalism is a useful yardstick here because proper investigative journalism is an empirical science which takes time and therefore money to do properly. There is no longer any money for proper journalism and thus journalism simply parrots abstractions. That’s all it can do. Abstractions are quick and easy and don’t require any work.

With our abstractions no longer grounded in reality, our public discourse flails around wildly. It reminds me of the last quarter of Hermann Hesse’s book Steppenwolf where Harry Haller enters the “magic theatre” and there follows a kaleidoscope of abstractions swirling so fast it makes one nauseous to read it (as was intended by Hesse). We’ve all been sucked into that magic theatre in the last two years; locked at home watching the kaleidoscope of pictures on screens. In truth, it’s all just been one giant projection. One giant Rorschach test. Just like in Steppenwolf, the speeding up of the abstractions represents the culmination of a process that’s been building for a while. That process is a mental breakdown. That’s what Haller goes through in the book and what we are going through right now at the societal level.

It’s possible this mental breakdown is the end of a cycle. That’s what Hesse implies in Steppenwolf. It takes the nausea of abstractions spinning out of control to throw us out of the comfortable world of “rationalism” and back to reality. But the abstractions that are spinning out of control now are not just limited to the ones specific to a supposed new respiratory virus. Almost everything seems to be up for grabs including things like “democracy” and “science” both of which are fundamental to our understanding of what western society is. Viewed “logically” or “rationally”, it should never had gotten to this point. There were so many off ramps along the way that could have been taken. Viewed psychologically, however, it makes sense. Like wood on the floor of a forest waiting to catch fire, we had built up far too many dead abstractions not tied back to reality. They need to get burned away for something new to grow. Like Harry Haller, we are hitting rock bottom and it’s only once we have hit rock bottom that we can start the process of getting ready to face the real world again.

Psychosis in Action

Societies run on stories. That was the basis of my initial analysis of corona as the invalid invocation of The Plague Story. In a post six months ago I noted that we were entering a period I called The Twilight Zone due to the failure of governments to deliver the appropriate ending to the modern plague story. I hypothesised that things would get weird because there was no backup story that could bring matters to an end. I was not wrong. Just in the last few weeks we’ve had the Australian government kick out the world’s best tennis player on trumped up charges. Then, as if leading straight on from that, we’ve seen the Canadian truckers convoy kick into gear. As with corona in general, if you’d told somebody just one month ago that these events would happen they’d have thought you were crazy. But they did happen and they are still happening in the case of the truckers.

January has also brought us another new development which is the declaration in a number of countries of an end to corona restrictions. Places like the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia appear to be trying to bring the story to an end by declaring the virus endemic. This has received pushback from the Branch Covidian True Believers in those countries who are now accusing the government of lying about the statistics in order to prematurely bring the story to an end. We had already seen this dynamic at play a few times in Britain, for example with the initial “freedom day” attempt last year. The True Believers will not accept the declaration that the virus is endemic as a proper end to the plague story. Unfortunately for them, that is the only end of the story at this point. There is no other way out. To acknowledge the fact is simple common sense.

Nevertheless, there are a number of countries refusing to acknowledge this fact; most notably Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Germany and Canada (I’ll stick to western countries here as I can’t really speak for the others). In these countries, the powers that be have attempted to simply gloss over the failure of the vaccines and continue with mandates as if nothing was wrong. In the case of Austria, they even decided to up the ante by trying to mandate the vaccine which, not knowing anything about Austrian politics, seems like about the dumbest possible thing to do. Canada was not far behind in the stupid stakes with curfews and other extreme measures being imposed on a country sharing a border with the US where, among other things, the Supreme Court had just struck down Biden’s mandate.

But the problem in countries such as Austria, Canada and Australia is not just one or two dumb decisions. The problem is the complete absence of any kind of story about what was going on. People might accept mandates and curfews a little longer if you could explain how they helped to bring the matter to a close. Instead, politicians turned to blatant scapegoating of the unvaccinated. Trudeau was among the worst on this front. That might work to score some cheap political points in the short term. In the long term you need a story and that is what Trudeau and other leaders have not provided.

It was into this narrative void that the truckers convoy started rolling. Whether by design or by accident, the truckers created a story. Act 1 was the convoy itself rolling across the frozen tundra of western Canada en route to Ottawa complete with the incredible scenes of people coming out into the freezing cold often in the early morning to cheer them on. Like any good story, the truckers had a Call to Adventure which was to meet in Ottawa on the weekend. And that’s what a great deal of people did. Meanwhile, people watching at home could show support by donating to the crowdfunding campaign.

The framing of the truckers convoy as a story differentiated it from the protests that happened elsewhere. Here in Melbourne, for example, we had the largest protests in my lifetime and the general mood looked very similar to Ottawa with ordinary people from all walks of life coming together in what was almost a celebration. Protests serve a purpose. But a protest is not a story. That’s why they are easily ignored. A story is not easily ignored, especially when it goes viral like the truckers convoy.

The truckers created a story that was so impressive that Trudeau needed to respond. How did he do it? By losing the plot. Among other things, he tweeted a laundry list of woke talking points, a complete non sequitur. Meanwhile, I saw an exchange in the Canadian parliament where the new leader of the opposition asked Trudeau’s second in command what the plan was to try and bring an end to the protest. Again, the response was a complete non sequitur.  Of course, we expect politicians to prevaricate, obfuscate and even downright lie but the lies must be in service of a larger political outcome i.e. a story. These non sequiturs from the Canadian government don’t tell a story at all. For that reason, they do not look like competent politics to me. They look much more like psychosis and specifically derailment, a term used in psychiatry to describe the occurence of non sequiturs in discourse.

We see similar levels of psychosis in the Australian public discourse right now. Anybody can see for themselves by reading the daily news but here’s a few of my favourite examples. After two years of 24/7 fearmongering, the Victorian government has taken out an advertising campaign to ask people to please stay at home if they get corona and not show up to hospital unless they are really sick because people with mild symptoms were overwhelming the hospitals. The Prime Minster said he thinks all discrimination against the unvaccinated should be dropped, something which was agreed by all states last year, while the Queensland Premier acted like this was a declaration of war against her state. It is currently expected that the Australian government will change the definition of “fully vaxxed” to mean three doses but when asked about international arrivals the Prime Minister said they would only be required to have taken two to enter the country. The Premier of Victoria had the gall to announce that “equality was not negotiable in Victoria” yesterday, which is surely news to the hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated who can’t work, visit a café or restaurant or enter public facilities paid for by their taxes. And perhaps funniest of all from my point of view, the Victorian health minister, the one who is responsible for actively discriminating against the unvaccinated in this state, is also the Minister for Equality. These absurdities and contradictions are all indicative of madness in a very literal sense. The inability to tell a story is no trivial matter. As Gregory Bateson pointed out, humans run on stories. It’s how we think. If your story doesn’t make sense, then you are not thinking. You are psychotic. [I’ve been pondering the metaphysics of stories quite a lot recently and hope to have a post on this in future.]

That’s part of the reason why politics runs on stories and part of the reason why stories are so important. We are now in a world with two different types of countries: those telling the story that corona is endemic (the plague story is over); and those telling no story at all. Canada is in the latter group. So is Australia. In one sense, all the truckers did was to tell a story which is to end the mandates and by extension the pandemic. That story is, in fact, the only way out at this point and any government with a shred of common sense would take the opportunity to follow the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia. Unfortunately, governments like Canada and Australia are no longer running on common sense. That’s why events are completely unpredictable or, to put it another way, psychotic.

Final thoughts on the Djokovic saga

There’s a story, I think from around the time of the Irish Rebellion, where one of the rebels upon being mercilessly bashed by an English soldier asks his assailant “Why do you hate us so much?” to which the soldier replies “because look at what you make us do to you.”

I imagine today Novak Djokovic asking the country of Australia “why do you hate me so much” and Australia responding “because look at what you made us do to you.”

It is arguably one of the defining features of humans that we have the choice at any time not to fall into the roles assigned to us but to exercise our free will. The English soldier didn’t have to bash the Irishman, it’s just what was required of him by the situation. Although we have free will, the exercising of free will is often the more difficult option because it requires us to re-evaluate and ask the question “who am I?” That was the option presented to the Australian government and by extension the Australian people this week. We chose to do what the English solider did. Rather than exercise our free will and ask the question “who are we and what are we doing”, we went with what was required of us by the archetype that is dominant at the moment, The Devouring Mother.

What is so fascinating about the case is that the Australian Government and Djokovic both found themselves in the pattern dictated by the archetype even though neither wanted it to happen and even though neither gained anything from it. That’s how life goes. The Irish revolutionary did not want to get caught and bashed by the English soldier and the English soldier did not want to bash another Irishman. But they fell into these roles anyway and so did we and Djokovic.

I’m not sure why Djokovic decided to take his deportation to court. He never had a chance at winning for the reason that the law is specifically written to allow the Immigration Minister to deport whoever he wants. Djokovic’s lawyers must have told him he had almost no chance but he decided to go ahead anyway.

For those who don’t know, the Australian government’s official reason for deporting Djokovic was that he “might” cause “anti-vax sentiment”, whatever the hell that is. Djokovic’s lawyer did a great job of outlining the ridiculousness of this claim but, as the government’s lawyer pointed out, the Immigration Minister is not required to provide a satisfactory reason and the court is not free to find his reasons lacking, hence the fact that Djokovic never had a chance.

Let’s step back and look at what has just happened during the last week and a bit.

The Australian government granted Djokovic a visa and a medical exemption. Djokovic, who could have had no clue what was about to happen, showed up to play tennis. That’s his job, after all. He gets detained at the airport on grounds that are later found to be spurious during a four day court case in which he is detained in a dingy hotel. He is released by the court and starts training for the Australian Open until the Immigration Minister cancels his visa on grounds of spreading “anti-vax sentiment”.

Did Djokovic come here with the intention of spreading “anti-vax sentiment”? No. Would he have said a single word about covid or vaccines while he was here (unless invited to do so). Of course not. Why would he? As Djokovic’s lawyer did a great job at pointing out during the court case today, there is no evidence that Djokovic has willingly and publicly aligned himself with the “anti-vax” movement, whatever that is. Rather, he became associated with that movement only after the Australian government first detained him. In other words, the Australian government caused the very thing that it would later accuse Djokovic of. If it had never given him a visa in the first place or if it had never detained him at the airport, none of this would have happened. He would have played tennis, probably won, and then gone home and everybody would have been happy. If the Australian government was really concerned with subduing “anti-vax” sentiment, it couldn’t have done a worse job. Note that this is an example of projecting the shadow. The Australian government, having created “anti-vax sentiment” by screwing up Djokovic’s immigration process, then accused him of creating “anti-vax sentiment”. The whole thing sounds absurd but only if you apply a causal lens. The reality is such things are acausal. Just like the English soldier and Irish revolutionary, it happened because predefined roles exist and the government and Djokovic “accidentally” fell into those roles.

Let’s take an everyday example of what I mean. For bullying to occur, there must be a bully and a victim. We typically think of the bully as the “active” participant while the victim is “passive”. But the victim must “choose” to participate in the bullying. If they don’t, there is no bullying. That’s why parents will tell their children to stand up to a bully. In the absence of intimidation, bullying becomes something different. Mostly it becomes nothing because the bully backs down. The would-be victim has denied the frame they were invited to participate in.

It’s not always the bully who initiates the frame. A depressed teenager walking round with shoulders slumped and a miserable expression becomes a magnet for a bully. They are creating the frame for bullying whether they like it or not. Note that this is something that Jordan Peterson has touched on. One of the reasons why you should stand with your shoulders back is so you don’t attract bullies.

Archetypes and social scripts are like the grammar of a language. If you have a transitive verb you must also have a subject and object. If you don’t, your sentence is not grammatical. Grammar is formal. It creates a frame. A similar thing happens all the time in interpersonal relationships. One person, often subconsciously, creates a frame which has roles for others to fill. If I offer you a job, I create a frame where you become an employee. But it can work the other way around too. In one of my favourite Seinfeld episodes, Kramer shows up at an office and starts acting like he works there. He immediately gets invited to meetings and given work to do. It’s funny cos the usual order of cause and effect is inverted but we also know it would work in real life. In a similar way, smiling can make you feel good even though usually a smile follows the emotion. Frames are a bit like electrical circuits. You need all elements to complete the circuit. Furthermore, any starting point you identify in a circuit you can call the “cause” and everything after the “effect” but this is not really valid. Any starting point will do.

If all this can happen at the individual level, it can also happen at the societal. The Australian Government and Novak Djokovic just got caught in the archetypal circuit that is The Devouring Mother. In its behaviour towards Djokovic, the government was arbitrary, vindictive and callous, just like a devouring mother. The key point, however, is that it had absolutely no interest in behaving that way. Everything the government did in the last week was against the national interest. Why did it do it? Why did the solider bash the Irish revolutionary even though he didn’t want to? Because the pattern demanded it. The archetype demanded it in this case because Djokovic had unintentionally fallen into the role of the rebellious child. As Djokovic’s lawyer pointed out in court today, there is no evidence that Djokovic wanted that role. He came to Australia for the obvious reason of winning a tennis tournament for which he was the hot favourite. He would have won millions of dollars in prize money. Instead, he goes home having wasted probably hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and spent almost a week living in a dingy room in a hotel. Nothing that happened here has furthered his interests.

What this shows is that we can all fall into archetypal situations whether we like it or not. The Irish revolutionary did not want to get bashed. The English soldier did not want to do the bashing. But that’s what happened. The Australian Government did not want to spoil this country’s reputation and ruin one of our main sporting events. Djokovic did not want to lose a heap of money and become an object of hatred. But that’s what happened. The whole Djokovic saga is a straight loss for all concerned. That’s what happens when a Shadow archetype is running the show.

As one final side note, I found the case today interesting for the importance of the meaning of words and how propaganda has real world implications. The phrase “anti-vaxxer” has become nothing more than a slur word. Like “fascist” it has some vague historical connotation, some potential link to reality, but its meaning has been twisted. The meaning of the anti-vax slur has been expanded now to include people who are also against government measures to enforce vaccinations. That is a completely different issue from the one of whether vaccines work. It is perfectly possible to be pro vaccine and anti-vaccine mandate. Nevertheless, in the last week we have had the Australian Government and the Federal Court of Australia use the word “anti-vaxxer” in this new fashion. Like archetypes and social roles, words are patterns and once a pattern becomes established it gets used even in important court cases. Thus we had the spectacle of Djokovic being imputed as an “anti-vaxxer” even though there is no evidence the he has ever spoken on the subject beyond his own personal decision not to take the corona vaccine. Can you imagine finding yourself in court where the entire discussion is about something you’ve never advocated for or said? That’s what Djokovic would have gone through today. It must have been surreal to say the least. All he did was come to Australia and try to play tennis.

Anthropological field notes from a trip to Melbourne, Australia

After two years of delays, I received word that my field trip to Australia was finally to go ahead. Conditions for the trip were subject to significant uncertainty due to the continuing social upheaval in the country. But with no end in sight to the current confusion, it was deemed a case of now or never and I accepted the risks and boarded the plane for Melbourne.

What became apparent from the very first but which I was very reluctant to accept was the dreadful state of our anthropological literature on the country of Australia. The picture given to me by our reference books jarred so strongly with the country I experienced by my senses and intellect that I wondered whether or not the pilot had taken me on a misadventure to a completely different land. I shall attempt in these initial notes to convey the main points of difference between the reality I saw and our lofty tomes on the matter and thereby to begin to correct our understanding.

The first error which I mean to correct is the notion that Australia is a culture devoid of faith, religion and religious ceremony. From the very first, my journey to Melbourne forced me repeatedly to call this assumption into doubt. Indeed, the Australians have as sophisticated and complex an array of religious ceremonies as any culture that we nominally call religious. Entry to the country is predicated on one such ceremony known as a “test” whereby a member of the priestly caste dressed in a full ceremonial outfit suffered me to open my mouth and have a special stick stuck down my throat. The stick, known as the “sample”, is promptly presented to the oracle who decides whether entry into the country may be allowed. Fortunately, in my case, the oracle favoured my entry. However, several others were not so lucky and were thus tripped up at the first hurdle.

On arrival at the airport in Melbourne, members of the priestly caste were once again highly notable for their elaborate outfits by which they were distinguished from the functionaries responsible for processing my paperwork for entry. Of this priestly caste I will have more to say presently. But let us now attempt a brief description of the religion from which the priestly caste derive their authority.

The god of the Australians they call by the name “science”. It is, to be sure, a very strange god by both anthropological and theological standards for the Australians say their god is nothing more or less than truth itself. Apart from truth, he has no properties. This disembodied god has no feelings nor emotions, he appears not in any art or painting and only rarely and very indirectly in literature and song. One might say of this god that he is all head and no heart. In this way he is perhaps the exact opposite of the old god who ruled in the west who was all heart and no head.

Of the priestly caste I have hitherto referred, the highest type are known as the “experts” and it is they who intermediate between the god and the general public.  Now this leads us to the second great error in our anthropological literature on the country of Australia for it is said that the Australians have a separation of church and state and that the priestly caste and the political class are entirely divorced from each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. The priestly caste, the experts, run the country to such a degree that I often found it difficult to ascertain in what way the political caste was involved at all. A phrase I heard repeated over and again by the political caste was that they were just “following the advice” while the common folk would often admonish each other to “trust the experts”. In this way, fealty to the god and to the priestly caste is almost universally practiced by the highest and lowest members of the society.

The main day-to-day responsibility of the priestly caste of experts is to cast oracles which are referred to as “models”. These oracles are used extensively by the political class and the general public. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most of the activities of daily life are based around these oracles, once again putting paid to the notion that the Australians are an irreligious people. Indeed, it was the casting of such oracles in March 2020 that led the Australians to completely overturn their social arrangements, a matter I will return to presently.

Oftentimes I asked my informant to explain such and such a cultural practice and he would refer back to the oracle as if that by itself was enough explanation. The wearing of a mask, for example, is dictated by an oracle who at any time may declare that the mask must be worn indoors, outdoors or not at all. The dictates of the oracle are final. Several times, upon attempting to interpret the oracles for myself, I asked whether or not they seemed incorrect and my informant simply laughed and said that I must “trust the experts” and that was the end of the matter.

Beneath the experts in the priestly caste are a number of lower level ranks among whom are counted the “bureaucrats”, the “journalists”, the “fact checkers” and the “opinion writers”. It is their role to disseminate the expert “opinion” and the details of the latest oracle readings to which the public must adhere. It is here that a significant change has occurred in Australian society since the great upheaval of 2020 for a new class of experts have come to prominence and replaced the old readings with new oracles while also implementing a completely new set of social practices and ceremonies. The old oracles which governed society were from the experts in the field known as “economics” and the name of the priestly caste were the “economists”. However, beginning in March of 2020, a new caste took power who call themselves “epidemiologists”. These epidemiologists threw out the old oracles such as the “GDP” oracle, the “inflation” oracle and the “unemployment” oracle, and implemented new ones, the most important of which is the “cases” oracle. It alone seems to drive much of the new practices and ceremonies that have been introduced by the new priestly caste.

The majority of the public does not concern itself with the act of divination, preferring simply to be told what the latest reading is. Nevertheless, the “cases” oracle is all important in Australian society. It is the first thing a man checks of a morning whereupon he gives much thought to what the oracle portends for his business, his career and his personal life. The political and merchant class also pays much attention to the oracle and will often announce new ceremonies and rules based on the oracle reading. Even in my short time in the country, I was surprised by the varying nature of the oracle which one day says this and the other says that and the two have little to do with each other. This has been the charge of a small group that has formed within the society who have criticised the new priestly caste of epidemiologists saying their readings of the oracle are false and there seemed to me to be substantive grounds for this accusation. However, when I put the idea to my informant he became angry and I was keen to avoid the subject thereafter.

This latter observation also contradicts the statements in our literature on the country of Australia where the Australians are said to be an easy going and satisfied people. This was not my impression at all but rather a general tension was the predominant emotional atmosphere of the land leading often to anxiety and anger in equal parts. This tension seemed to me directly related to the arrival of the new priestly caste who have implemented many new ceremonies and practices in a very short period of time from an anthropological point of view. This has included a society-wide initiation ceremony known as a “vaccination” which is now a significant determinant of a man’s social standing. Many of the new ceremonies and practices follow directly from participation in this ritual and this has caused significant discontinuity for many members of the public who do not wish to partake in the ritual saying that the oracles used to justify it have been read wrong while also denying the ascendancy of the new priestly caste about whom they say they were not consulted.

The speed with which the new priestly caste has taken power has given rise to a small but determined sect of dissenters that is made up a wide cross section of the society including a number of members of the priestly caste itself. These have been written off as blasphemers and heretics in the usual fashion by the use of such derogatory phrases as “anti-vaxxer” and “conspiracy theorist”. It appeared to me as if what had happened in the last two years in Australia was really the beginning of a sectarian religious split although my understanding of this was greatly hampered by the curious fact that the Australians themselves do not believe they are partaking of a religion at all and thus any attempt to get my informant to speak on the subject hit a dead end. If I may speak philosophically rather than anthropologically for a moment, it seems to me problematic that the Australians believe their god to be truth itself for this negates appeal to their god on any other basis while also preventing the questioning of the oracles which are assumed to be correct a priori rather than a posteriori.

In closing, I posit that one explanation why our anthropological literature has got it so wrong on the country of Australia is perhaps because the country, like many of its civilisational sister countries, is right in the middle of what is either a religious collapse, revival or realignment. Which of these it is and the exact nature of the phenomena are not clear but I suggest that subsequent field trips in the years ahead will repay the investment by what looks to be a major anthropological change occurring with great rapidity.

The Joker in the Hole

The corona event rolls on and the synchronicities just keeping piling up. For those of us with an eye to symbolism, this week has provided yet more grist for the Jungian mill. Of course, it had to happen here in Melbourne, Australia’s home of corona and the city with the world record for the longest lockdown. Hooray for us, we’ve spent almost 300 days of the last two years locked in our houses pursuing the grand prize of covid 0. But, as the saying goes: play silly games, win silly prizes. In the last few weeks, cases are through the roof here and we’re now up to 20k a day. It was not always so.

This time last year, we seemed to have won the battle. Covid had been “eliminated” and we enjoyed a normal summer free of masks, QR codes, vaccine mandates and segregation based on private medical decisions. Life was good. Our Premier, Dan Andrews, was on medical leave having fallen down a set of stairs and injured his back. In 2020, he had been the arch-Devouring Mother during our second lockdown castigating citizens for bad behaviour and gaslighting the public on a daily basis all while desperately trying to avoid the blame for his government’s obvious incompetence at causing Melbourne to be the only place in Australia to be locked down. His absence from public life at that time was as if the spiritual clouds had cleared and we enjoyed a sunny summer in both a meteorological and a psychic sense.

Fast forward to today: Mr Andrews is again on holiday, this time by choice. In the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, covid zero is a distant memory. The Australian authorities have changed tack and now decided to pull the band aid off and allow the inevitable to happen. Mr Andrews’ holiday comes at a politically convenient time for him because it means that he doesn’t have to get up in front of the press and explain why we apparently don’t care about covid anymore after locking down the state for two years. He has built his entire political capital in that time by pandering to the True Believers. But they are not happy. They weren’t happy even before this week. The lines to get PCR tested are absurdly long. There are stories of people camping overnight to get tested because the test centres keep closing in the middle of the day due to lack of capacity. This is, of course, just the latest example of government ineptitude but this time it is directly affecting the True Believers, many of whom are catching covid and realising that the vaccines don’t do what they were supposed to. This was always going to happen, of course. Australia is currently going through the necessary metamorphosis that will lead to whatever comes next. In the process, however, lots of people are really angry, especially here in Melbourne.

It was into this psychic morass that Novak Djokovic waded in the last few days as he tried to travel here for the upcoming Australian Open.

Tennis is the only sport I follow, so this whole thing is a bit of a personal synchronicity and I can speak with some confidence on the subject. Djokovic is clearly the best player the game has ever seen and he is one grand slam victory away from making that official. He is also, to use a typically Australian phrase, a top bloke and, to take the matter a little bit further into the dangerous realm of gender politics, a real man. As a real man, he says what needs to be said even when it is unpopular to say it. He is a man who can speak truth to power and he has been doing that his whole career. Despite being the greatest player on tour, he has not been the crowd favourite. Federer and Nadal hold that title. In Federer’s case this is understandable. Djokovic may be the best player ever but Federer is surely the most beautiful. He is the very Platonic form of a tennis player. If the ancient Greeks played tennis, it would have been Federer they carved into stone, not Djokovic. To switch metaphors, Federer is the Lamborghini of tennis players. He looks great but has a habit of faltering under pressure and has mostly been outplayed by the grit and determination of both Nadal and Djokovic when they hit their peak. Djokovic, like Nadal, is a muscle car. He doesn’t look as good but he gets to the finish line quicker.

But there’s clearly something happening in the popularity stakes that goes beyond the aesthetics of the game of tennis. Djokovic has a nasty habit of saying things that are politically incorrect while Federer and Nadal are very much conformists. Overnight, Nadal towed the party line when asked to comment about Djokovic’s problems with Australian immigration. He said that we should trust the medical professionals and that the vaccines are the thing that will bring the pandemic to an end. He said this despite the fact that he caught covid just a month ago thus proving the point that should be blindingly obvious by now that the vaccines do not prevent infection and therefore cannot bring the pandemic to an end. Nadal is saying what people want to hear and possibly he also believes it. In any case, he is the poster boy for all those people, including those who are fully vaccinated and yet still catching covid, who don’t want to acknowledge the truth. Meanwhile, Djokovic, whether he wanted to or not, represents the truth that people don’t want to hear: the vaccines are a failure; everything we did in the last two years was for nothing; it doesn’t make any difference if you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated. Bill Hicks once made the point that we don’t have a very good history of dealing with people who tell the truth: Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, the list goes on. Add Djokovic to it. He’s now sitting in jail.

The details of how it happened are still not clear. It looks to me like bureaucratic bungling combined with cheap politicking. The Victorian Government knew it had to allow Djokovic to play or risk having the Australian Open taken off it. It responded in the time-honoured way of governments who need to allow something to happen but can’t be seen to condone it: it created an obfuscatory bureaucratic process according to which Djokovic was granted a “medical exemption”. But it’s the federal government that is responsible for border control. Either through bureaucratic bungling or political interference, the feds decided Djokovic couldn’t get in. No doubt we’ll get the full story in the next days.

As with the rest of corona, however, the facts are irrelevant. The Djokovic saga cannot be just a random sequence of things that led to an outcome. The probabilities are impossible. What are the odds that this would happen in Melbourne, the home of the world’s longest corona lockdown? Why is the State Premier, the arch Devouring Mother, on holiday when it happens? Why is it happening right when we are in the middle of a mass outbreak of covid despite the fact that the population is more than 90% vaccinated? Why is it happening in Australia where we are among the worst countries in the world for discarding human rights in the last two years? It’s all too synchronous. More importantly, the symbolism matches up too perfectly.

So, let’s put our Jungian hats on and do a lightning tour through the symbolism of the Djokovic saga.

The Park Hotel

At time of writing, Djokovic is being kept at the Park Hotel in Melbourne while his legal appeal is being heard. Other residents at the Park Hotel are “illegal” refugees who have been there for – get this – 9 years. The hotel has become a permanent protest site for those objecting to Australia’s treatment of refugees and now the world’s number one tennis player is living amongst them. Australia’s treatment of refugees is in direct contravention of the humans rights charter just as our government’s response to corona has contravened human rights. You simply couldn’t find a better place to highlight that fact than the Park Hotel.

But there’s more. The Park Hotel was also one our “quarantine hotels” in the last two years and the site of major outbreaks of covid due to the incompetence of the state government. If you wanted to highlight that fact, you couldn’t do better than house the world’s number one tennis player there.

The Park Hotel is therefore the perfect symbol for the Australian government’s abuse of human rights not just of foreign citizens but our own citizens. It is also the perfect symbol for the Victorian government’s incompetence and corruption. And Djokovic is now staying at the Park Hotel because of the incompetence and corruption of both state and federal governments. Him being there is a symbol not just of our incompetence but our callous indifference to human rights that, until corona, was directed toward foreigners but during corona has been directed towards our own citizens. How you treat “the other” is how you also treat yourself. Jung would agree. So would Jesus and we’ll get to that shortly.

 Globalism

The free movement of peoples is one of the founding principles of globalism and specifically neo-liberal globalism. Of course, as the refugees at the Park Hotel can attest, it was always the free movement of “approved people” and with corona the list of “approved people” is getting shorter. Whatever the moral arguments here, there is a significant question of logistics. We now have special visa categories, special exemption categories, special tribunals to adjudicate special cases etc etc. The whole thing is a bureaucratic nightmare and an economic disaster. You can’t run an international tennis tournament this way and you can’t run globalism this way. Either governments get rid of the stupid rules or they will suffer the economic consequences. Australia is going to suffer consequences from the Djokovic saga as our international reputation again gets tarnished.

It’s also noteworthy that this is now a major diplomatic rift between Australia and Serbia. I doubt that matters too much to either country because I’m pretty sure there’s not a lot of commerce that goes on there. But eventually this kind of rift will spread to more important relationships. That’s what happens when the old rules break down. We can expect to see more of this in the years and decades ahead as countries get into disputes because the rules are no longer clear. It’s not hard to see that that pathway ends in the reappearance of one of the other four horsemen. The Australian government was unable to prevent a diplomatic incident in this case where the only thing that rests on it is a tennis tournament. What happens when governments are unable to prevent diplomatic incidents about things that are really important?

The Rebellious Children

Add Djokovic to the list with Jordan Peterson and others who are now spiritual leaders of the rebellious children. Note that the qualities are the same: the willingness to speak uncomfortable truths, the moral backbone to stand for what you believe in and suffer personal consequences etc. Whatever happens from here, Djokovic wins on the symbolic front against the anonymous, amorphous blob which is the powers that be hiding behind stupid bureaucratic rules powered by hysterical emotional energy. Meanwhile, Djokovic’s father gave a great speech saying exactly that.

As a side note, I was a bit of heavy metal tragic in my teen years and one of my favourite bands was Anthrax who have a song called One Man Stands. The lyrics could not be more fitting for the Djokovic saga – https://genius.com/Anthrax-one-man-stands-lyrics

Away in a manger

The world’s greatest tennis player, a rich and powerful man, but more importantly a man of moral conviction, is now staying in a hotel with a group of powerless and probably stateless refugees. The whole thing has a bit of the symbolism of Jesus about it. Djokovic is a member of the Orthodox church and actively involved in charitable foundations. As has been widely publicised, he donated money to Australia after the bushfires of 2019.

Meanwhile, the Australian Prime Minister went on twitter yesterday and said “rules are rules” in relation to the Djokovic case; the exact excuse given by Pontius Pilate.

The Shadow of corona

Corona was supposed to be a victory for science and progress. It has failed but, in true Jungian fashion, its proponents are not admitting failure but projecting the shadow of that failure onto the unvaccintated. Djokovic is now the symbolic representation of the unvaccinated and the True Believers are projecting their shadow onto him.

The Joker

Djokovic’s nickname is The Joker. The Joker has a range of symbolic meanings. Here’s just a handful.

  • In almost all card games where The Joker is used, The Joker is the most valuable card and trumps all other cards.
  • The Joker corresponds to The Fool in tarot and signifies among other things both the end of the old and the beginning of the new.
  • The Joker character relates to the Trickster archetype which symbolises, among other things the bridge to the unconscious. Thus, The Joker often symbolises mental illness/imbalance eg. The Joker in Batman. Mass psychosis anyone?
  • The Joker also relates to dionysian activities like dancing and having fun. Singing and dancing was banned over the weekend in NSW. Meanwhile, the Serbian fans of Djokovic have been singing and dancing out the front of The Park Hotel the last few days. Djokovic was also famously “caught” dancing in a nightclub in Serbia during the corona hysteria of 2020.

The Joker vs Karen

I only realised this once Djokovic had won his court case and I’ve been laughing about it ever since.

The court case was against the Home Affairs minister whose first name is none other than KAREN (Andrews).

Karen is the name which has emerged in popular culture in recent years to capture The Devouring Mother phenomenon. Although, not one hundred percent synonymous, your average Karen is a Devouring Mother (Caregiver archetype in shadow form).

So, we have Novak (no-vaxx) Djokovic (The Joker) beating Karen (The Devouring Mother) in court.

As the saying goes: you couldn’t make it up.

Melbourne as sporting capital

Melbourne prides itself on being “sports mad” and the “sporting capital of Australia”. In jailing the world’s number one player who has won the Australian Open 9 times, we act in the complete opposite way to the story we tell ourselves. If things go bad from here, it is not impossible that Melbourne will have the Australian Open taken away for somewhere more civilised. As my grandmother used to say, that’s called cutting your nose to spite your face.

The Djokovic saga is another addition to the long list of symbolic inversions we have seen during corona where we have behaved in exactly the opposite way to what we thought we were. Some of the more important symbolic inversions we have seen are the notion that children must be sacrificed to protect the elderly (child vaccinations, lockdowns etc), so-called liberal democracies behaving in a way that is indistinguishable from totalitarian dictatorships, the switch from globalisation to a hyper localisation. Melbourne as “sports capital” jailing one of the world’s great sportsmen is a trivial addition to the list but still noteworthy.

Revelation of the true self

But the previous is point is also part of a larger socio-psychological revelation that corona has unleashed. We may have been “all in this together” at the start but that is no longer the case. Each nation is now on its own journey and the journey no longer has anything to do with a virus but is a spiritual journey.

Earlier, I referenced the Australian Prime Minister’s tweet in which he also made reference to Australia’s “strong border policies”. He’s right. It’s those same border policies that have seen refugees locked in the Park Hotel for 9 years. It’s by those same border policies that we have seen fit to abrogate our human rights obligations. But the subtext in Morrison’s tweet is an appeal to the one true bedrock of Australian politics and culture: xenophobia. There is a federal election this year and Mr Morrison is banking on doing what his predecessor, John Howard, did and trying to cash in on the latent xenophobia that exists in our culture. It’s very Australian, although not the Australia that we like to present to the world. Nevertheless, we are presenting it to the world. Corona has revealed what we really are, the ugly underbelly of our nation.

It has, of course, done the same for many other countries. That’s why Europe is currently reverting back to authoritarianism. It’s why corona in the US has primarily been about corruption and economic racketeering. Here in Australia, we were slowly inching back to the pragmatism which dominated our political culture prior to corona. Things were actually looking good for a couple of weeks and then the Djokovic thing blew up. Once again, I can’t help but feel that there is a symbolic calling here. “The Gods” just won’t leave us alone here in Melbourne. We seem to be being called to confront our own demons. It’s simply too weird and unlikely that Djokovic would be at the Park Hotel of all places, in Melbourne of all places. Melbourne has manifested the shadow more vociferously than almost any other place in the last two years and it seems that the universe is determined to hold up a mirror in which we see ourselves as if demanding that we acknowledge what we really are.

The start of 2022

This leads onto the final point I want to make which is the timing. Did this have to happen in the first week of 2022? Could it be that this is what is portended for the new year? That we must face our shadow, not just Australia but every country. That we must also face the shadow of the whole corona debacle and admit that it is a failure. I admit this seems incredibly unlikely but so is the fact that the world’s best tennis player is currently under arrest in the supposedly civilised country of Australia. So is everything else that has happened in the last two years. If it does happen, if we can start to face our shadow, it could be a good year.